America has a sordid past; it is marred with the eradication of the native population, centuries of brutally-savage slavery, and the oppression of almost every race and religion that ever arrived on American soil. Yet, somehow, America overcame its differences and, as a nation, became synonymous with the term ‘melting pot.’ One may see this as an impressive feat; however, it pales in comparison to what the Chinese accomplished over a three-thousand-year span. The archaeological site of Nanzhuangtou, which contained evidence dating back to 8000 B.C.E., acts as one of the markers to the beginning of China’s history. In the late Neolithic period, roughly five thousand years later, historians can start to see the beginnings of the Chinese ‘melting pot.’ Between 3000-2000 B.C.E., China experienced a “time of increased contact and cultural borrowing” between different regional cultures. This increase was the start of a great many distinguishable cultures which intersected throughout Chinese history.
From China’s inception it was very accepting to other traditions. When the first great dynasty came to be, when the Western Zhou took over the Shang, there was little change—especially when it came to perceptions on religion, politics, and social lifestyles. While some of the Shang culture and traditions died away, there were no abrupt changes in culture. The start of the Western Zhou would serve as the base, or foundation, of Chinese culture observed throughout history.
The next layer of culture was built on ancient Chinese philosophy. During both the Spring and Autumn period, and the Warring States period, from approximately 770-256 B.C.E., Chinese philosophy blossomed. It was during this time in Chinese history that continuous warfare, as well as political and social changes, led to the need and advancement of Chinese philosophy. The greatest example of this occurred during the Warring States period. It was then that a period, now known as the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought,’ came to fruition. In the tumultuous era that followed the creation of the Western Zhou, trusted advisors were highly sought after. Rulers would turn to said advisors for two reasons: for intellectual solutions to disorder caused by the continuous violence, and to show that their region was capable of acquiring such wise and able men.
Much of the philosophy from the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought’ was built upon or contradictory to one of East Asia’s wisest men, Confucius. His beliefs in the significance of filial piety, that men should aspire to become true gentlemen, and that people should strive to advise his ruler regarding the best way to govern, were heavily influential on other great minds to come. These great philosophers—men like Mozi, Mencius, and Xunzi—contributed to ideology regarding both politics and culture. From their political dogma, these philosophers theorized branches of ideology such as Confucius, Daoism, Legalism, and Yin and Yang. In the five centuries between the beginning of the Eastern Zhou and the beginning of the Qin Dynasty the Chinese nation passed on, from generation to generation, the different philosophies of the ‘Hundred Schools of Thought.’
As the Qin Dynasty began, King Cheng began one of the largest unification processes in all of world history. By 230 B.C.E., under the new self-proclaimed title of ‘First Emperor,’ King Cheng began to bring all seven of the great Chinese states together, further allowing culture and tradition to interact. It was as First Emperor that Cheng “initiated a sweeping program of centralization that touched the lives of nearly everyone in China.”
Serving as China’s first emperor, King Cheng was the first in his family’s very short, single-strand line of the Chinese monarchy. Upon the First Emperor’s death his son, Qin Ershi, served as the Second Emperor. The Qin Dynasty ended with the Second Emperor; although, it should be noted that the Qin Dynasty was already unraveling, so the end of this family’s monarchy was of no fault to Qin Ershi. Within a short time of the Second Emperor’s reign, rebellion brought about the elimination of the Qin Dynasty, and, from its ashes, the Han Dynasty was born. The Han Dynasty brought with it a new family tree, a tree of humbler means. The first ruler of the Han Dynasty was Liu Bang, who would be recognized as Emperor Gao. Unlike the aristocratic rulers of the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Gao came from a family of modest commoners. This is important as it reflects one of the ways in which the Chinese people aspired to change a political aspect of their current culture and lifestyle. The centralized government, however, the part of the Qin Dynasty that allowed the connectivity of China’s past, was left almost entirely untouched. This allowed for culture to continue spreading throughout all regions of China.
As a factor of the continued growth and success of the Han Dynasty the Silk Road expanded into China and served as a major commerce highway for all of Asia. The Silk Road reached from central China all the way through to the Mediterranean Sea. Traders brought with them their own culture, some of which was introduced to current Chinese culture. An example of this would be religion. Buddhism was founded, in India, and spread, to China, during both the Qin and Han dynasties. Due to the great significance of the import/export traffic of the Silk Road, the Buddhist religion found its way to many regions of East Asia, and today is one of the largest religions of Southeast Asia.
With China’s many rulers, great philosophers and centralized government, it is no coincidence that Chinese culture and traditions were so well-spread amongst the Chinese people.